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she knew it was coming before she actually felt it. she could sense it, this electric menace rumbling her way, the air suddenly heavy and full of static. Before she could even fix the word in her mind- earthquake-it had begun: a vibration that started in the soles of her feet, as if the linoleum tiles of the kitchen floor were quivering beneath her. Her world going suddenly liquid.
Claudia stood frozen at the sink, looking out the window at the sun, which remained inexplicably fixed in the sky just above the swaying eucalyptus trees. Her stomach leaped north-lodging somewhere in the general vicinity of her esophagus-as the mug on the counter began to shiver and then rattled its way toward the basin. The floor rippled before her. Outside, the ancient bougainvillea showered violet petals across the splintered deck.
"Earthquake!" she shouted, turning in toward the house.
It grew stronger. She could hear it-she'd never imagined that an earthquake would be this loud but it was, the earth creaking and grumbling, answered by the agitated chattering of their dishes and artwork and knickknacks. Below her, she felt their home wrenching against its foundation. Claudia couldn't recall whether she was supposed to run for the door or climb under a table or locate the triangle of life, whatever that was; anyway, these options all struck her as pathetically impotent responses to this monstrous twisting. Instead, she widened her stance and gripped the counter, reminded of a surfing lesson she'd taken a few years back. It's just like a wave, she thought. You have to ride it out.
Jeremy appeared in the dining room in his boxer shorts, holding a can of shaving cream. Half naked, the room breaking loose around him- pictures falling, chairs turning in nervous circles-he looked soft and thin and painfully vulnerable despite his height, but his voice, when he spoke, was firm. "Get in the doorway!"
She couldn't quite process his command, distracted by the exhilaration of this upside-down sensation, as if she'd climbed onto a roller- coaster ride without a safety belt. And then Jeremy was yanking her arm and drawing her into the doorway. He blocked her in with his body, pressing her up against the wooden frame. She felt his rapid heartbeat through the silk of her cocktail dress, the trembling house against her back. Together, they watched as their wineglasses marched, one by one, off a shelf to certain death on the floor.
The house jerked violently, making one last break for freedom. An enormous crash came from the living room and Claudia shrieked-less from fear than wonder and anticipation, a sense that in this next moment something might change forever. She visualized the concrete support beams that cantilevered their house over the canyon buckling and collapsing, leaving them buried under a pile of rubble. We could die, she understood, for the first time.
And then, just as suddenly, the earthquake was over, a dying echo as the ground once again grew solid beneath them.
Still, they stood there in the doorway for a long moment, suspended in time, wary. In the canyon, Claudia could hear dogs barking, the plaintive wail of a fire alarm, yet everything was strangely still, as if all of Los Angeles were holding its breath. For the first time she could remember, she felt connected to the entire invisible city, ten million people united in terror for fifteen glorious seconds. I love it here, she thought, absurdly.
Then the city exhaled, and the spell broke. A car drove by outside and a helicopter passed overhead and the squeals of children rose from the park at the bottom of the hill. Claudia looked up at Jeremy, feeling his pulse slowing against her chest. The panic had subsided, replaced by an effervescent sensation-perhaps the adrenaline of knowing that she'd just cheated death, perhaps just the return of the giddy mood that had buoyed her since she'd woken up that morning. A crystalline sort of joy washed over her, pure and blinding and sharp: for her husband, her home, her city, her life.
"Hi," she said to Jeremy's earlobe.
He shifted and gazed down at her, resting his forehead against hers. "You OK?" he asked, and ran his hands up and down her bare arms, checking for breaks or abrasions.
"I'm fine," she said. "In fact, I'm kind of turned on. Is that weird?"
Jeremy kissed her nose and then her upper lip and let his torso rest against hers. "Earthquakes are a known aphrodisiac," he said, his hand sliding toward the hem of her dress.
She kicked a piece of broken glass away with the toe of her sandal and tugged at the waistband of her husband's boxer shorts, fingering the damp skin trapped under the elastic. "Was that the biggest earthquake you've experienced?" she asked.
"Nineteen eighty-nine was far worse. This one was hardly a blip in comparison."
In the eight years that Claudia had lived in Los Angeles, she had been in a few earthquakes, but only little ones that vanished almost as soon as you noticed them. She would read the newspaper predictions- california has more than 99% chance of a big earthquake within 30 years-with morbid anticipation. Back in Wisconsin, they'd had tornadoes and blizzards, but those marched in with trumpets blaring, giving you at least a few minutes to brace yourself and barricade the windows. A California earthquake had always seemed to her a more glamorous kind of natural disaster, an abrupt and thrilling narrative shift. She'd been waiting for this moment since she moved here for film school, and now that it had finally arrived and been deemed only adequate by the native, she was disappointed.
"Well, it felt big enough to me," she announced, as his fingers tugged at the skirt of her dress. She ran her hands up his bare back, riding the knobs of his spine. "For a moment there I thought the house might collapse and crush us both."
"Silly girl." His voice was low and phlegmy, his eyes winched shut. Water dripped on her face from his hair, still wet from his shower. "We weren't ever going to die."
"And if we had? Isn't this the moment when we're supposed to take stock and decide whether we'd be satisfied with our lives had we just met an untimely death?"
He wiggled a hand between her thighs. "Well, would you?"
She considered the question, distracted by his fingers. She let herself go limp and still Jeremy's body held her upright against the doorframe: She felt secure here, as if an anchor were tethering her, keeping her from drifting off into unsafe waters. "Yes," she said. "I'd be OK with dying today."
His hand stopped moving as he mulled this over. "That's morbid," he said. "But sure. I'll go with you, if we must."
The exchange hung there between them, lingering one tick of the clock too long.
"Though I'd rather put it off until after my movie premieres tonight, if you're trying to figure out the best time to do me in," Claudia finally added.
"Then I'll call off the hired assassins," he offered, deadpan, and she laughed, and the adrenaline took over again and they did it right there, amid the broken wineglasses and smudged linoleum, ignoring the ringing cell phones and the car alarms going off up the block; everything heightened by the sense of crisis averted, and the two of them together inviolable against even the motion of the earth.
After they finished, Jeremy disappeared into the living room as Claudia readjusted her dress and surveyed the damage in their kitchen: three wineglasses lost, a framed postcard on the floor, the handle broken off the mug in the sink. Above the stove, the botanical watercolors that they picked up at a flea market had tipped askew. In the plaster above the door, a fresh crack spidered across the wall. She reached up and put her finger in the raw gash, pried off a powdery chunk of plaster, and crumbled it in her hand. Patching the walls: another item she could add to that endless to-do list. The plaster walls were original to the house, which was built long before the days of Sheetrock; just as the plumbing that occasionally spat rust-colored water was original, along with the brick fireplace clogged with fifty years of soot, and the vintage O'Keefe & Merritt stove missing one of its orange Bakelite knobs, and the wood floors with gouges from the sofas of the previous owners, and the dubious gravity heater in the bedroom floor, which, with the turn of an ancient key, belched hot air from an open flame positioned precariously underneath the house. Their home was in a constant state of decay that they seemed incapable of arresting.
But Claudia adored this house with an irrational passion: Perhaps it wasn't the palatial Barbie Dream House she'd fantasized about when she was a little girl, but it was hers, an irrefutable sign pointing to her status in the world, a manifestation of the fact that she'd achieved something worth noting. They had seen at least twenty houses before they'd bought this one three years ago; each one more decrepit than the last, each more astonishing in the audacity of its listing price. Even for $600,000 their options had been severely limited-the first real estate agent they met had groaned when she heard their budget-and they were forced to creep farther and farther away from the center of Los Angeles to find anything within their price range. They'd looked here, in the isolated hills of Mount Washington, only reluctantly-Jeremy had worried that it was too far from a decent bar and restaurant, not even a grocery store within a ten-minute drive-but as soon as she walked inside, Claudia had known it would be their home. It was just like the ad had said:
Cozy two-bedroom bungalow nestled in a picturesque setting w/stunning canyon views. Warm wood floors, fireplace, big windows & a glass slider to breezy decks.
So what if those two bedrooms were squeezed into twelve hundred square feet, and the glass slider was an addition from a dubious seventies remodel and didn't belong in a postwar cottage at all, and the exterior of the house had been painted a hideous shade of lavender? The house had claimed them as its own, seduced them so thoroughly with its coved ceilings and sweeping vistas from the master bedroom and built-in bookshelves that they hadn't even had to speak to each other at all, hadn't had to exchange any meaningful looks behind the real agent's back during the tour-they'd just known. This was the house from which they would be launching the rest of their lives: their artistic careers, their two-month-old marriage, their family. They'd put in a bid before the end of the day.
It was a marvel that they could afford the cottage at all: They'd had to go over their budget to outbid eleven other potential owners. But it was 2005, and mortgages were cheap and plentiful. Their broker didn't blink once when he looked at their income statements and saw a barely employed musician and an aspiring film director who had the ten percent necessary for a down payment only because of Jeremy's meager inheritance. Still, even with an ARM interest-only loan, they blew through Jeremy's inheritance within twenty months, began living on credit cards, and were saved just in time by a second financial windfall when Claudia sold her film at Sundance last January. That money was vanishing quickly, too. But soon the struggles would end altogether: Jeremy's new band's album was nearly done, and the payday that Claudia's agent had negotiated for her next film was so staggering-mid-six figures!-as to make their mortgage payments seem negligible.
Claudia swept the shards of glass up with a broom and carried the dustpan out the kitchen door to the garbage bins in the driveway. There she stood looking past the tangle of sage scrub and chaparral at the houses that cascaded down the mountain: a mix of ramshackle cottages with stained-glass baubles hanging in the windows that suggested Mount Washington's recent bohemian past and newly remodeled modernist behemoths that pointed to its more bourgeois future. Once, this neighborhood had been a stronghold of middle-class Mexican- American families, but the onslaught of gentrification was bringing
a swift end to all that. These days, the token minorities tilted more toward Filipino and Korean; the primary evidence of the Spanish- speaking population that had gravitated toward the bottom of the hill was the norteño music that occasionally drifted up from the lowland parks. Even in the short time Jeremy and Claudia had lived in Mount Washington, the neighborhood had visibly changed. The ancient sculptor at the top of the street who fed the feral cats had died, and his peeling mid-century home had been reimagined by the new owner-a music producer who drove a BMW-as a three-story contemporary with water features. Next door to him, in a remodeled Craftsman that until recently had held a friendly Mexican family with six grown kids, lived a forty-ish couple who seemed to have two of everything: matching Priuses, matching twin babies, matching stainless commuter coffee mugs that they carried to their matching movie-industry jobs each day.
She turned around to see Dale, the gay violinist from two houses up, assessing the damage to his home. "You guys make it through OK?" she called up to him.
"Cracked foundation, I think. Looks like the house dropped an inch. Know a good contractor?" He looked past Claudia and then grimaced, disappearing back through a stand of sycamores. Claudia turned to see Dolores Hernandez, her neighbor from across the street, standing in the road and looking furious. A trash can had slid down the hill in the quake and capsized, toppling its contents on the path to her front door. Using a pink house slipper, Dolores palpated a Hefty bag that had ejected coffee grounds on her arid lawn.
"You see!" Dolores exclaimed, pointing a cigarette at a scattering of blackened banana peels and a decapitated American Girl doll. She looked up at Claudia and shook with indignation. "Your garbage, my house!"
Dolores had lived here forever, a stubborn holdout against the forces of change. Her house perched on the upward slope of the hill, a thickly stuccoed box whose strip of front yard had been paved with a forest of faded plastic pinwheels and toppled garden gnomes. Dolores did not strike Claudia as a garden gnome type, let alone a whimsical pinwheel sort of person. Tremendous in both age and girth, Dolores most closely resembled a landslide: wobbly jaw, pendulous breasts, a vast rear end pitted with fathomless craters, all that craggy flesh descending downward, downward, ultimately settling at the veined and purple ankles that Dolores squeezed into flesh-toned support hose.